In sad twist on tradition, captains let passengers go down with the ship

Published: 4:12 AM, April 21, 2014

NEW YORK — Ever since the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, carrying its captain and many of its passengers with it, the notion that the captain goes down with his ship has been ingrained in popular culture.

But now, for the second time in only over two years, a sea captain — first in Italy and now in South Korea — has been among the first to flee a sinking vessel, placing his own life ahead of those of his terrified passengers.

A much-publicised photo from the latest accident shows the Korean captain being helped off his own ship, the Sewol, stepping off the deck to safety even as scores of his passengers remained below, where, as survivors believe, the passengers became trapped by rushing water and debris.

The behaviour has earned the captain, Lee Jun-seok, 69, the nickname the “evil of the Sewol” among South Korean bloggers. It also landed him in jail.

Maritime experts called the abandonment shocking — violating a proud international (and South Korean) tradition of stewardship, based at least as much on accepted codes of behaviour as by law. “That guy’s an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever had command at sea,” said Mr John Padgett III, a retired United States Navy rear admiral and former submarine captain.

Mr Padgett’s sentiments were echoed by Captain William Doherty, who has commanded US Navy and merchant ships and managed safety operations at a major cruise line. He called Lee’s decision to leave his 447 passengers “a disgrace” and likened it to the desertion of the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Italian coast in 2012.

The captain of that Italian ship, Francesco Schettino, is on trial on manslaughter charges after the sinking of his ship left more than 30 people dead. “You can’t take responsibility, or say you do, for nearly 500 souls, and then be the first in the lifeboat,” Mr Doherty said.

Civil courts in the US have long viewed captains as having an obligation to protect their passengers and ships, but the cases in South Korea and Italy seem likely to test the notion of criminal liability in disasters.

Most countries do not explicitly state that a captain must be the last person to leave a distressed ship, experts say, giving captains the leeway to board lifeboats or nearby ships if they can better command an evacuation from there. South Korea’s law, however, appears to be explicit, allowing the authorities to arrest Lee for abandoning the boat in a time of crisis.

An international maritime treaty known as the Safety of Life at Sea — first adopted in 1914 after the Titanic disaster — makes a ship’s captain responsible for the safety of his vessel and everyone on board. The treaty also says passengers should be able to evacuate within 30 minutes of a general alarm.

The Sewol took two-and-a-half hours to sink. THE NEW YORK TIMES